Global Witness report: 2019 ‘deadliest year on record’ for environmental defenders

At least 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019, according to a new annual report, ‘Defending Tomorrow’, produced by the London-based non-governmental organisation Global Witness.

About 40% of those killed were indigenous activists asserting their right to self-determination and protecting their ancestral lands from those looking to exploit their natural resources, the NGO reported.

More than half of the reported killings last year occurred in just two countries – Colombia, with 64 murders, and the Philippines, with 43. Brazil had 24 killings, Mexico 18, Honduras 14, and Guatemala 12.

More than two-thirds of the killings took place in Latin American, with 33 murders in the Amazon region alone. Nearly 90% of the killings in Brazil occurred in the Amazon.

In Honduras, killings rose from four in 2018 to 14 last year, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2019. It is the country with the greatest percentage increase in lethal attacks against activists.

The global toll is the highest ever recorded by the NGO for a single year and is a 30% increase on 2018, when 164 environmental defenders were killed.

“On average, four defenders have been killed every week since December 2015 – the month
the Paris climate agreement was signed. Countless more are silenced by violent attacks, arrests, death threats, or lawsuits,” Global Witness said.

“Globally, the true number of killings was likely much higher, as cases often go undocumented.”

Mining was the deadliest sector globally with fifty environmental defenders killed in 2019. The biggest number (16) were killed in the Philippines. More than half of the environmental defenders murdered in 2019 were from mining-affected communities in Latin America.

Agribusiness is the second deadliest sector. In 2019, more than 85% of agribusiness-related attacks recorded were in Asia. Of these, almost 90% were documented in the Philippines.

Logging was the sector with the highest increase in killings globally since 2018, with 85% more attacks against defenders opposing the industry recorded last year.

Underreporting, widespread impunity, and corruption make it difficult to identify perpetrators, Global Witness says, but the NGO says it was able to link state forces to 37 of the murders of environmental defenders in 2019.

“Private actors like hit-men, criminal gangs, and private security guards were also suspected of  involvement,” the NGO said.

Nineteen of the of environmental defenders killed in 2019 were state officials or park rangers; people employed to protect the environment. Such attacks were documented across eight countries: the Philippines, Guatemala, Romania, Kazakhstan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Brazil, and Ghana.

In two of the murders in Mexico in 2019, 60-year-old Otilia Martínez Cruz and her 20-year-old son, Gregorio Chaparro Cruz, were found dead outside their home in the town of El Chapote on May 1. Hired assassins – allegedly at the behest of loggers – shot the two indigenous Tarahumara defenders in retaliation for their work to stop the illegal deforestation of their ancestral land in the Sierra Madre.

More than a dozen Tarahumara defenders have been killed in recent years, including another member of Otilia and Gregorio’s family, Julián Carrillo, who was murdered in 2018.

In Brazil, on November 1, 2019, 26-year-old Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead when a group of at least five illegal loggers ambushed him and another member of the Guajajara tribe in Maranhão state. Both were members of Guardians of the Forest, a group that works to combat illegal logging gangs encroaching on indigenous land.

Between 2000 and 2018, 42 Guajajara indigenous people were murdered in the ongoing conflict with illegal loggers.

Global Witness says that, as the rate of deforestation has risen and the enforcement of environmental regulations has relaxed under President Bolsonaro’s leadership, the threat to these communities has grown.

“As of April 2020, a further four Guajajara community leaders have been killed since Paulo Paulino’s murder,” the NGO said.

Global Witness says that verifying cases from Africa continues to be difficult. “Limited monitoring of the issue by civil society, media repression, and localised conflict mean attacks are probably underreported in some regions, with seven environmental activists reported murdered last year.”

‘The first line of defence against climate breakdown’

Global Witness speaks of the urgent role that land and environmental defenders play in opposing carbon-intensive and unsustainable industries that are accelerating global warming and environmental damage.

The NGO says the climate crisis is “arguably the greatest global and existential threat we face”.

Global Witness highlights the ongoing pattern of indigenous communities being disproportionately attacked for standing up for their rights and territories. This is despite research showing that indigenous and local communities manage forests that contain an amount of carbon that is equivalent to at least 33 times the world’s current annual emissions (the figure is likely to be an underestimate).

Members of indigenous communities have land and water management skills that are crucial to combatting the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, Global Witness points out.

“Research is increasingly showing that indigenous-managed lands have lower deforestation rates and better conservation outcomes than protection zones that exclude indigenous peoples.”

The NGO stated: “For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against climate breakdown. Time after time, they have challenged the damaging aspects of industries rampaging unhampered through forests, wetlands, oceans, and biodiversity hotspots.”

Despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role played by environmental defenders, and the dangers they increasingly face, “far too many businesses, financiers, and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work”, Global Witness says.

“During the current Covid-19 crisis, some companies are extending their attacks on defenders, and governments are reducing protections. When you take this all together with the increased number of attacks on defenders during 2019, this is a more worrying time than ever.

“The trends are clear, the statistics are global, the causes lie with irresponsible business practices and the governments that support them.”

Global Witness campaigner Rachel Cox said: “Agribusiness and oil, gas, and mining have been consistently the biggest drivers of attacks against land and environmental defenders – and they are also the industries pushing us further into runaway climate change through deforestation and increasing carbon emissions.

“If we really want to make plans for a green recovery that puts the safety, health, and well-being of people at its heart, we must tackle the root causes of attacks on defenders, and follow their lead in protecting the environment and halting climate breakdown.”

Attacks in Colombia and the Philippines increase

The number of attacks against land and environmental defenders in Colombia and the Philippines has increased since 2018. The toll in Colombia is the highest that Global Witness has ever recorded in the country and is more than double that of 2018..

“Reports show that the murder of community and social leaders has risen dramatically in Colombia in recent years,” the NGO stated.

“The United Nations Human Rights Office points to several reasons for this growing tide of violence, such as the challenges of implementing the 2016 peace agreement including land reform and programmes meant to encourage farmers to swap illegal crops for legal harvests.

“The post-2016 shifts in local power dynamics are driving increased violence. Rural communities appear to be badly hit, as criminal gangs reposition themselves across regions previously controlled by the FARC-EP guerrillas.

“Escalating land conflict and environmental destruction has pushed communities to become defenders.”

Ramón Bedoya pictured with bodyguards in 2018 at his family’s farm in Pedeguita y Mancilla, Chocó, Colombia. Ramon’s father, Hernán, who had led local resistance to agro-industrial expansion and stood up against powerful palm oil, banana, and ranching companies accused of illegal land grabbing, and had converted his land into a ‘biodiversity zone’, was murdered by paramilitary assassins in December 2017. Photo credit: Thom Pierce/Guardian/Global Witness/UN Environment.

Global Witness reports on the attack by armed men on activist Francia Márquez and other environmental and social justice leaders who were meeting in the town of Lomitas in Colombia in May 2019.

“Miraculously, no one was killed in an assault that lasted 15 minutes and during which a grenade was launched at the group,” the NGO reported.

Francia Márquez is one of Colombia’s most prominent human rights and environmental defenders. Throughout a successful campaign to stop illegal mining in La Toma in the Cauca region of south-western Colombia, she was threatened, harassed, and eventually forced from her home.

The Cauca region is one of the most dangerous places in the world to stand up for the environment. More than a third of all killings of Colombian land and environmental defenders documented by Global Witness in 2019 took place there.

Francia Márquez accepts the 2018 Goldman Prize for South and Central America. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The Philippines has been consistently named as one of the most dangerous places in Asia for environmental defenders. Thirty were murdered in 2018.

“The relentless vilification of defenders by the government and widespread impunity for their attackers may well be driving the increase,” Global Witness said.

Forest destruction in Palawan in the Philippines, where village chief and environmental activist Ruben Arzaga was killed when apprehending illegal loggers. He was the twelfth member of the group of environmental activists to have been murdered in less than two decades. Other environmental defenders say they have been threatened by the local governor and businessman Jose Alvarez. The environmentalists oppose the illicit hardwood logging that is fuelled by the surge in the number of boutique hotels on the island.

The killings in the Philippines in 2019 include that of the indigenous Manobo leader Datu Kaylo Bontolan, who opposed illegal mining.

Datu Kaylo was reportedly killed during a military bombardment in Kitaotao, northern Mindanao, on April 7, 2019. He had returned to the mountains to help document violence against fellow Manobo members.

Norma Gayonan, from the Kadimac community in Mindanao, stands on ancestral lands illegally taken for banana plantations. Members of the community have been shot at and jailed for trying to reclaim their land and homes. Photo: Global Witness/Jeoffrey Maitem.

Killings in Romania ‘not isolated incidents’

There have also been increasing threats and attacks against environmental defenders in Romania. Two forest rangers were killed in 2019. Both were working to stop illegal logging. Hundreds of threats and attacks against rangers in Romania have been recorded.

One of the rangers killed was Liviu Pop,  who was working to protect one of Europe’s largest primeval, climate-critical forests.

“Liviu was shot and killed after protecting trees in a country where organised criminal gangs are decimating these forests,’ Global Witness said.

A month earlier, the body of Răducu  Gorcioaia was found in his car near an illegal logging site in Pașcani. He had suffered fatal head injuries.

In November 2019, thousands of people marched in Bucharest and other cities across Romania to protest against illegal logging and the murder of the two forest workers. They demanded that the attacks be investigated thoroughly.

These murders are not isolated incidents, Global Witness says. “According to the Romanian forestry union, four other forest rangers have been killed for their work in recent years, and it has recorded over 650 different incidents of physical assaults, death threats, and destruction of property aimed against rangers.

“It is clear that protecting these vital forests is dangerous work, and Romania’s environmental defenders urgently need to be better protected.”

Global Witness says that, while the number of murders of environmental defenders in Europe is low, the activists face smear campaigns and criminalisation.

Resisting corruption and the exploitation of natural resources 

Activists still campaigning and under threat include Angélica Ortiz, one of the prominent Wayuu women defenders from La Guajira in northern Colombia, who, for years, has opposed the largest coal mine in Latin America.

Throughout her campaign to protect water rights for communities living in one of Colombia’s poorest regions she was threatened and harassed, Global Witness says.

“Angélica’s organisation has faced repeated threats – six in 2019 alone – allegedly from paramilitary groups, as well as public smear campaigns. The organisation says the government has given no adequate response to their repeated requests for protection, dating back to 2018.”

Rachel Cox said “Many of the world’s worst environmental and human rights abuses are driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the global political and economic system. Land and environmental defenders are the people who take a stand against this.”

More than one in ten environmental defenders killed in 2019 were women.

“Women defenders face specific threats, including smear campaigns often focused on their private lives, with explicit sexist or sexual content,” Global Witness said.

“Sexual violence is also used as a tactic to silence women defenders and much of it is underreported.”

Photo courtesy of the Save Our Schools Network in the Philippines.

Global Witness points out that environmental defenders across the world achieved several successes in 2019 – “a testament to their resilience, strength, and determination in protecting their rights, the environment, and our global climate”.

In Ecuador, the Waorani indigenous tribe won a landmark ruling that prevents the government auctioning its territory for oil and gas exploration.

In Indonesia, the Dayak Iban indigenous community in central Borneo secured legal ownership of 10,000 hectares of land after a decades-long struggle.

In a case brought to the UK Supreme Court by communities affected by a large-scale copper mine in Zambia, a judge ruled that the complaint can be heard in English courts. This could have wider implications for companies failing to come through on their public commitments to communities and the environment, Global Witness says.

With 2019 being the most dangerous year on record for environmental defenders, it is obvious that both governments and companies have failed in their responsibilities, the NGO adds. It calls for the following actions, among others, to be taken.

  • Governments need to urgently address insecure land rights, protect defenders’ rights to safety, and investigate and bring to justice those responsible for attacks against them.
  • Companies must respect defenders’ rights, develop and implement zero-tolerance policies with regard to threats against defenders, and ensure full cooperation with any investigations into attacks.
  • Investors should screen portfolios for “defender-related risks”, establish early warning systems to detect and prevent potential conflicts, and include contractual provisions in all project contracts requiring compliance with the company’s defender policy.

Global Witness said: “Despite knowing how critical rainforests are for the climate, we are seeing an escalation of deforestation, and defenders who challenge logging continue to be ‘disappeared’.

“Despite growing awareness of how indigenous land is grabbed for commercial mining projects, banks still rubber-stamp operations without proof that the human rights of people living locally have been protected.

“Despite the perilous threats to marine life and freshwater, those defending our rivers and oceans are marginalised and silenced.”

Brazilian environmental defender Maria do Socorro Silva, who leads Cainquiama, a coalition of tens of thousands of members of the Amazon’s most persecuted indigenous and local communities, is pictured at a community meeting about a new development in Barcarena in Pará, the deadliest state in Brazil for environmental activists. She has been the target of death threats and intrusions into her home. The defenders demand recognition of their land rights and the right to a clean environment in the face of large-scale projects and the pollution of their water sources.

Headline photo: Manobo leaders Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay (right) and Datu Kaylo Bontolan. Photo courtesy of the Save Our Schools Network.

Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay – the only woman chieftain in the history of the Manobo peoples – has dedicated her life to protecting the rainforests of the Pantaron mountain range, home to the Talaingod-Manobo people of Mindanao and a haven for endangered species such as the Philippines eagle.

For decades, Bai Bibyaon led the Talaingod-Manobo against corporate plunder of the climate-critical
landscape by the logging and mining industries. Environmental defenders succeeded in forcing a powerful logging company to withdraw its plans to expand into their village. However, as more companies moved in, so did the military – making the struggle even more dangerous for indigenous defenders and causing many to flee their land.


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